As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time.
The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
This preview of this year’s Tanglewood season has been revised twice already, and here come James Levine’s cancellations of all his Tanglewood engagements. The Pelléas et Mélisande will be replaced by a TMC Orchestra concert. The other programs will proceed as scheduled. Levine’s replacements will be announced in June. I’ll discuss the wider implications of this later in The Boston Musical Intelligencer. In the last version of this preview I introduced the following paragraph to mitigate the peevish tone in which I began. It still holds true, I think.